Rising in swells from oceans of anger toward and fear of the police are cries to defund, dismantle, and decommission the Chicago Police Department. Rallying cries, however, do not make for effective policy, and the paroxysm of violent crime in which Chicago finds itself is no time to put at risk the pursuit of accountable, constitutional policing in order to keep people safe.
The way we talk and write about the notion of defunding as Chicago grapples with a crisis of confidence in its police department may well determine whether this moment is an opportunity for real reform, or a morass out of which overcorrections emerge which are no less damaging for being well intentioned.
Change – broad-reaching, transformational, and generational – is desperately, urgently needed. But Chicagoans should make no mistake; reform takes resources and crimefighting has costs. Decontextualized, knee-jerk budget cuts to CPD will not solve the ills wrought by decades of mistrust and misconduct. Rather, such an approach would serve only to starve on the vine the Department’s nascent efforts at reform, and would hobble to the point of paralysis a weary and wary police force, to no benefit of the communities against whom the worst ills of broken policing have been committed – the same communities that bear the brunt of violent crime.
We should be having a two-part conversation; first, we must right-size CPD’s footprint – that is, adjust the size and the shape of its reach to accommodate and reflect its capacities and weaknesses. Second, we should have a rigorous and efficiency-driven conversation about how much that operation does and should cost.
With respect to right sizing CPD’s footprint, where the police are given responsibilities for which they are not trained or equipped, they are positioned only to fail. When the police are tasked with responsibilities for which social service agencies, community-based organizations, behavioral health professionals, and other providers are better suited, troubling outcomes are likely. That is, we cannot expect success from asking the police to serve as the first line of defense and the last resort for an ever-growing universe of problems with an ever-shrinking pool of resources. We do not recruit or prepare CPD members to be social workers, addiction specialists, or guidance counselors. Nor do people join the police department expecting to be any of those things.
With respect to costs, when the scope and breadth of the police department has been thoughtfully trued up, we ought to have a data-informed conversation about how City dollars going to CPD are and should be spread among its appropriate functions. CPD’s budget is a huge piece of the City’s fiscal pie. Progress cannot be made, however, simply by shrinking the size of that piece. Rather, budget dollars flowing to CPD should be allocated across sensibly-scaled operations in ways which reflect the values of transparent and community-driven reform, and that eliminate waste which accrues to no one’s benefit.
Where CPD could save money by effectively managing overtime expenses and civilianizing positions when possible, it should. The goal of doing so, notably, should not be a smaller line item for smaller’s sake – but rather, to make available resources to support an understaffed internal reform effort, provide for the wellness of CPD members, and fuel effective crime-fighting strategies of which this city is desperately in need.
As summer violence rages on and into budget season, we ought to be talking about what policing should look like, and how much that kind of policing should cost. In a moment of critical reckoning, the outrage fueling cries for defunding, dismantling, and decommissioning CPD – however well-placed – cannot substitute for responsible decision-making.
Deborah Witzburg is Chicago’s Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety with the Office of Inspector General. She is an attorney, former prosecutor, and graduate of Brown University and Northwestern University School of Law.